Category Archives: Short Story

It’s Here!

Available for download on the Kindle: The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge. This complete novella is a prequel to A Soldier’s Honor, and is now on Amazon for $0.99 on the Kindle. While it is not necessary to read this story before “Honor”, I do think it adds a bit more depth to the characters and world. I hope you will check it out, and if you like it please spread the word.

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The Bandits of Pratt's Refuge

Coming Soon!

As you may, or may not know… I have been writing a short story to go along with “The Scepter of Maris” series. It is a prequel novella that takes place about two years before “A Soldier’s Honor” and features some of the characters from that book. The story mainly focuses on Meric, Malina, and James, but there are a few other minor characters from Book One, as well as some new ones being introduced. It is certainly not necessary to read this before you read “Honor”, but if you are interested in how James first meets Meric and Malina, you will find it there. I will be putting it up on Amazon as a $0.99 download on the Kindle, so there is really no reason not to grab it and enjoy. Below is the cover and a brief synopsis of the novella.

The Bandits of Pratt's Refuge

 Horrible crimes have been committed on the road to Yost, a lakeside traders town in the Kingdom of Glendon. Already set to hunt down the ones responsible for the first set of murders, the Yost garrison commander Captain James Bridgewater discovers two more instances to lay at the feet of these bandits. The most recent crime is the worst of all, and it has James and his men more determined than ever to put a stop to it. With the help of two new allies, he will show these bandits the meaning of justice.

It should be up soon, but for right now it is being checked over by my amazing editor (also read sister) Leslie Dupree. Once I get it back and go through all of the revisions and any polishing I might deem necessary, I will put it up on Amazon. The cover is from Author Marketing Club (a very helpful site for aspiring authors), and will probably be temporary, just like the one for “Honor”. The new cover for “A Soldier’s Honor” is being done by an amazing artist (also read cousin) named Mack Beasley, and I hope to talk to him about doing one for this book as well. One of the hardest parts about self-publishing is not have the resources or money for things like editing and book covers. I am very fortunate to have people helping me along the way.

I will put up another post when the book is available for download, but for now… back to Book Two.

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The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Five

The next chapter of my prequel short story  (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.

The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Five: The Refuge

“That was amazing!” Weber said for the third time. Though, thankfully, at a more reasonable volume after Meric had warned him on the second repetition. Weber seemed determined that he know how impressive the speed and accuracy of his shot had been. After he let out a deep sigh, he heard Malina chuckle from somewhere behind them.

They had regrouped after finding the prisoner, and settled in while Wood (as Meric had noticed the men referring to the Sergeant) had his ‘chat’ with the man. Apparently, the prisoner had been very cooperative. Wood said the guy could not sell out his friends fast enough, and while they would not rely on the man’s word alone, they definitely gained some useful information. The revelation of the caves beneath the valley, alone, would have been worth the hassle of dealing with another prisoner, not to mention that they were indeed the ones responsible for the deaths being investigated. The number of men, placement of lookout position, and weapons available would be verified to the extent possible. Which was what they had gathered to discuss, along with strategies for taking the valley. One of the Cullen twins (Meric could not tell them apart, yet) was left to watch the prisoner after he had been bound and gagged.

They were looking at the map and deliberating the possible ways to enter the valley, which was running almost exactly north to south, when Meric noticed the troubled look on the Captain’s face. Bridgewater was so obviously not looking at Meric and Malina that he might as well have shouted their names. The Captain’s dilemma was understandable; the people best suited to scout out the area for information, where the two people he knew the least about. Could he trust them? It would not be an easy decision, but Meric believed that the Captain would have to place his trust in them. From what he had seen so far, they were the only two with the skill necessary for the task. While Weber was not hopeless, he had nowhere near Meric or Malina’s abilities. Even Woodard, who could move with surprising stealth for a man built like he was, could not match the two Rennick natives.

Putting the lives of your men in the hands of relative strangers was not a position to be envied. Meric left the Captain to his deliberations, and looked to Wood as he spoke about the vale. He was pointing out the locations of the lookouts according to their prisoner when the Captain called him and the Lieutenant aside. Handing the map to Baker, the Sergeant moved off in his superiors’ direction. While the three of them put their heads together, Meric joined the discussion with Malina and the rest of the soldiers. He would abide by the Captain’s final decision, but could only hope that the man agreed with his assessment.

“We take out the sentry on this hill overlooking the valley, and replace him with Meric. With his skill using that bow, he can start taking out the enemy just before we attack,” said Terry Cullen (or was it Perry? He still could not tell).

“Right,” continued the other Cullen. “Then we hit them while they are all confused.

“Good plan, Cullen comma P,” Woodard barked at the first Cullen that had spoken even as he approached the group, making half of them flinch.

Meric had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. He would have to make sure he was around the next time Woodard went to Brody’s inn. Having the two of them in the same room might be fun, especially if there was beer involved.

“Uh… thank you, Sergeant?” came the hesitant reply. He seemed to gather some courage and continued. “I thi-”

Don’t tax that brain of yours, Private. You okay with that plan, Vettor?”

“Yes, Sergeant,” Meric replied crisply, causing said Sergeant to narrow his eyes.

Meric could tell that the man was unsure if he was trying to be funny. Meric just looked calmly back at him until the man snorted and turned back to the others.

“Alright, here’s how it’s going to go down. Me, Vettor, and Malina will scout out the area first.”

He must have seen something in Malina’s face that made him pause, because he raised a hand to her.

“Hear me out. Vettor will take the eastern most hilltop overlooking the valley. That will be his side to scout as well. It should be a higher vantage point than the other side. I know you two would be better at getting around unseen by yourselves, but I’m gonna need you to go into the valley with the others, Malina. After scouting out the area, you’re gonna get me close enough to the other sentry, and then get back to the south end of the valley.

“We will split up so that there will be people entering either end. That idiot told me that the main cave entrance was kept hidden, in case someone found them out here. They have ladders in place to get to the entrances they use regularly. There are two; one for the boss and one for the rest of them. If trouble comes, they hit the caves and remove the ladders after they are up. Hopefully, we catch them off guard enough to prevent that, but there will probably be some of them in the caves already. Your job is to find that entrance, and lead the others to it.”

She nodded, satisfied enough with her orders.

“An hour after the sun drops below the tree line, me and Vettor take out the sentries and move into position, replacing them. Hopefully with no one the wiser. After that, we wait to a two hundred count, and then start raining down the confusion.” The last part was said with a grin.

Meric was not the only one to return the eager smile.

“Seven in the group to the south, the other three post at the northern end to keep anyone from getting away. If the prisoner was not lying, there should only be twenty-three of them left. If you sorry lot can’t handle two-to-one odds with this bunch of scum, then if you survive, you’ll wish you hadn’t when I’m done.” Woodard looked around at each of his men, and nodded his approval at what he saw. “Damn right! Let’s move out.”

 

#

 

Meric spent the last two hours of daylight scouting the area he was assigned and then reporting back. It was as Woodard suspected; these were a bunch of lazy, undisciplined ruffians. The one man he found on watch at the north end was sitting with his feet up, back turned to the outside, and drinking. The target up on the hill was also drinking, but at least he was looking in the right direction. He had also begun starting a fire just as Meric headed back to report, that would most likely back-light him nicely once the sun was down. When he reported to the others he mentioned that he thought there might be some ground traps at the entrance to the vale that he was assigned to check, because of the route the few men walking around took. They did not take any particular path until they got to a certain point, and then they always walked the same route.

Malina agreed and Woodard ordered Weber to take the northern end, as he would be more likely to spot these traps if those men needed to come in from that way, and the men at the south would wait for Malina to lead them in. Once everyone was briefed on their responsibility, the Captain stepped forward.

“With everything the prisoner has told us, added to the fact that the trail leads directly here, there is no doubt in my mind that these are the ones responsible for the killings we have been investigating. If you need more; Malina actually made her way into the valley and had a look around.” There were several surprised looks sent in her direction, and more than one nod of respect. “She overheard two men talking about the latest murders… one was… detailed in his retelling. They also have two young women caged up next to the eastern most cottage.

“Meric, make sure no one tries to use them as hostages.”

At Meric’s nod the Captain then took a moment to make eye contact with each of his soldier’s.

“If you can incapacitate any of them without putting yourself, or someone else in danger, do so. Otherwise, you put them down like the dogs they are. If they surrender… well, that is what the shackles you will carry are for. If they do not surrender… you show them the same mercy they showed that little boy.” As he finished, his voice was cold, implacable.

There was not a single person present that had any problem with those orders. Meric hated to take a life, but also knew sometimes it was necessary. Life was precious, and not to be thrown away needlessly. That knife cut both ways, though. These men deserved what they would get, and if he had to lose a little sleep over it, then so be it. He was certain that he would not be losing much.

They ended their briefing after going over the updates of traps and lookouts he Malina had made to the map, then moved out to their areas of responsibility. The sun had just set, and the sky was rapidly darkening, but Meric had paid attention when he was scouting earlier. He found his way back to the spot he had picked with no trouble. Settling in to wait, he divided his attention between his target and the moon, as it slowly crept higher. It was reasonably bright, but not full. It also would not be overhead any time soon, so they could not rely on it for light. Meric did  not think that would be an issue, since these men did not appear to have a lack of firewood. He could tell from the way the trees were lit up that there had to be a few big fires going down in the vale, and as he had thought, the man he was watching had a blazing fire going just behind him.

Shaking his head at the man’s stupidity, Meric studied the trees around the lookout for indications of wind. The orange glowing foliage did not even stir in the slightest, causing a slight grin to come across his features. Perfect.

When the appointed time came, Meric stood from his crouch and moved a step away from the pine he had been leaning against. Sighting his target even as he put tension on the bowstring, he breathed in deeply. When his right thumb brushed his ear, he let out the breath slow and even, adjusted slightly, and let fly.

Just as the string had slipped past the point of no return on his fingertips, another figure began to reveal itself from out of the darkness surrounding the firelight. With no hesitation, acting on pure reflex, another shaft was sent on it’s way. There was barely a second separating the two arrows as they crossed the distance to the, now two, targets. Meric could not tell due to the distance and lack of light, but he imagined that the second person barely had time to be surprised at the arrow sprouting from his companions chest before the second yard long projectile pierced his own heart. Both dropped dead without making any more sound than that of their bodies hitting the dirt.

Sprinting across the open area, he found the path up to the lookout post easily enough, and headed up as fast as the incline would allow him to go safely in the dark. Woodard would have a much easier time, since the western side of the valley was not much more than a big hill. He once again felt thankful for the lack of apparent skill or discipline shown by these men, as he followed the path leading up. Leaving an obvious trail right up to their lookout post was just one example of their ineptitude.

At the top Meric began a count in his head and made a quick check of the area just in case there might be another uninvited guest and then moved away from the fire and toward the inside ridge over looking the valley interior. He knew that he and Woodard would not be able to time their assault exactly, but they would be close enough. They were mainly going to be a distraction, so it might even be to their benefit.

Finding a spot that kept him from being visible due to the fire, but with a good field of view, he surveyed the dell and continued counting. He located the rock ledge that held the cave entrances about thirty yards down to his right, mentally marking it as a point to keep an eye on. The spot he chose would be a good one for keeping the bandits away from the cave entrance.

He had only made it to one hundred and twenty-three when a woman’s scream drew his attention to movement by the cottage below him. His earlier scan had shown the two make-shift cages, both with an occupant. He checked these again with a quick glance, and seeing them still occupied, he turned back to find a man dragging the screaming woman around the back of the cottage by the hair. She tried to fight back, but was jerked even harder by the hand fisted in her hair, causing her to stumble. The man pulled her into the shadows behind the cottage, but fortunately for Meric, the three large bonfires spread around the center of the vale were bright enough for residual light to reach them. It was not ideal, but he could see well enough for a shot.

By this time he still had over a sixty count to go, but he would not be able to wait. The man yanked the woman around to face him and then punched her in the face so hard she spun and landed face down in the grass. Not giving her time to recover, the man was on top of her quickly. She had not made it fully to her knees when he yanked her skirt up over her back and knelt down hard over her legs causing her to collapse. She struggled in vain, as the man’s hands went to his own waist to work on his clothes fastenings. He had just finished getting his belt loose when Meric’s arrow took him in the throat. The woman had never stopped struggling, so even as her assailant toppled sideways she was scrambling away. Rolling onto her backside, she continued crawling backwards until noticing the state of the man that had been attacking her. Confusion and fear had her looking around frantically. It did not take long for her gaze to make it up the hillside, and even though every instinct he had screamed at him to stay concealed, he moved until he was lit up enough for her to see.

He did not stay that way long. When he felt sure that she had seen him, he waved her in his direction, and then moved back to the shadows. What she did next would be up to her. Once more concealed by darkness, he surveyed the area again, looking to see if anyone noticed what had just transpired. Apparently they had not. He could see several men hanging around the fires, laughing and rowdy. Only one turned in the direction the man had taken, but he had merely shouted “watch out, she bites!” and went back to his drink while his nearby friends roared out laughter in response.

Despite all of this going on, Meric had not lost his count. Noise from directly below turned out to be the woman making her way to him, so he shifted his aim away from her to search out a new target. As soon as he reached two hundred he sent the knocked shaft on its way. Right into the left butt cheek of the ‘comedian’. He did not feel inclined to kill the grin that formed at the man’s high pitched scream.

 

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The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Four

The next chapter of my prequel short story  (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Four: Getting Acquainted

It was slightly awkward for the first hour after setting up camp, but things slowly began to settle and the tension ebbed. After Malina reassured the man for a third time that she was not offended, Captain Bridgewater seemed to take it to heart and began asking the two Rennick natives some pointed questions. Since they had been hiding who they truly were for some time now, it was almost second nature to tell the story about their past to the soldier’s. Lying had never really come easy to Meric, but he had learned out of necessity.

The harsh reality of betrayal was a lesson that only needed to be taught once before it was taken to heart. If his own countrymen could turn on them in a heartbeat, then he would not chance the truth with strangers. There was enough of the story that was true, so he could at least assuage some guilt, and it helped to keep the tale from being too complex. The more details you had to make up, the bigger chance to slip up.

“Horses, you say? From that palomino’s line?” The Captain eased back and let his second take over.

“Mmhhmm… and Malina’s appaloosa, a few others,” Meric said, answer both of the Lieutenant’s questions.

“I had heard that someone bought the old Haskins place, but not who. So what made you decide to leave Rennick? By all accounts, there are a lot of people near the capital that appreciate good horses. They have that big race every year, right?” This came from Woodard.

Meric answered easily enough, but reminded himself to keep an eye on the stocky Sergeant. The man’s tenacity was readily apparent.

“Things changed in Parna… hell, the capital city was not the only place that felt the difference when King Titus was murdered. The new King was not exactly subtle. He is a tyrant, and any-”

“Meric,” Malina chided. “I doubt these good men want to get into a political debate tonight. Why don’t we skip over that part?.”

Meric quickly forced down his embarrassment at getting carried away. He had just been reminding himself about watching what he said, and here he was about to slip up moments later.

“Right… sorry. I guess we just needed a change. I have only ever heard good things about the King of Glendon, and had even visited Yost once, when I was younger, and remembered it fondly. It seemed like as good a choice as any. Malina and I, along with Brody and one other friend, got together, pooled our resources. Now, she and I own the farm and breed horses, Brody owns the inn, and our friend Silas helps out as needed.”

“So, you two are…” Captain Bridgewater looked back and forth between Meric and Malina.

Meric laughed as he shook his head vigorously.

“Gods, no!” That earned him a sharp elbow in the ribs and a glare from Malina, but he just laughed some more and continued. “She may as well be my sister. We have known each other for years and consider ourselves family.”

Meric was pretty sure that the Captain was glad to hear that, since the man seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes off of her. He was careful, but Meric caught him once or twice.

“You both appear to be very skilled trackers. Where did you acquire those skills?” While the Sergeant asked in a polite tone, the question could be considered invasive. A quick glance around showed that the Captain and Lieutenant knew this, but were still going to let it go. It seemed that Woodard was going to be their interrogator, how ever friendly he made the questions sound.

“I grew up in northern Rennick, hunting and tracking was an everyday part of my life. I grew to love it.” Meric shrugged and left it at that. That was the truth, just not all of it.

“My father was a Royal Scout,” Malina answered for herself. “Instead of a son to pass along his skills, he got me…”

“And since she can out track, out hunt, and out shoot any of the sons of his peers, he was one proud papa, and would let everyone know it.” Meric finished for her, causing her to blush, but she also smiled fondly.

Before the good Sergeant could resume his questioning, Meric decided to ask one of his own.

“Since it sounds like the crime back on the road was not the reason you are out here, I assume that these bandits have done this before?”

Bridgewater sighed heavily and nodded.

“Two other times that we know of. We need to question them to see if there is more, but the three we know of are enough to see them all hanged.”

Woodard mumbled under his breath, “if they live long enough to get questioned.”

Meric was pretty sure that the Lieutenant heard him, but the man ignored it and gave a brief overview of the other two crimes. When he was done, Meric could see the resolve in Malina’s eyes, and he imagined it matched his own. These men needed to be stopped.

“I am going to bed, gentlemen. I’ll get an early start, follow their trail until I find them or we need to camp again. Hopefully they aren’t too much farther.” Malina stood as she was speaking and moved over to her bed roll.

“Night.” Meric’s voice mixed with a few of the other men as she moved off and then he found his own bed, falling asleep not long after.

 

#

The subdued noises of the men packing up camp around him made Meric smile. There was no way that they were anywhere close enough to their prey to be overheard, but the soldiers were speaking in whispers and being careful not to make too much noise as they got ready to depart. Most of their caution was probably due to the steely gaze of their Sergeant as he he sat by the fire, already packed, and surveyed the men working. Having finished his own packing long ago, Meric watched them move about the campsite as well. The men joked or chatted quietly, but wasted no time getting their tasks done. They worked efficiently, and quickly.

“So… how far do you think we will need to go to find these criminals?”

The Sergeants quiet question brought Meric out of his musings.

“No telling, but that valley on the map you showed us last night seems a likely place. We are headed in the right direction, and it would be close enough for these men to use it as a base.” He shrugged and then continued. “It does not bode well for the families you believe have made a home there, but that makes me even more sure that they would settle there. Ready made place to sleep, fresh water, and it is secluded enough that no one is likely to find it without some luck or knowing it is there.”

“Today, then.” The man ran a hand through his short brown hair, and then nodded. “A few hours before the sun sets. Sunset might be a good time… catch them off guard. I doubt they have the kind of discipline necessary to keep a proper watch. We hit them at dusk.”

Meric just nodded.

“You any good with that bow? Could you take out a sentry from a reasonable distance?” the Sergeant asked.

Meric had to fight a smile before he responded.

“I am fair to middling.” Then the grin broke loose. Before he could say anything in regard to the smirk that came over the Sergeants face at his response, Malina’s soft, barked laugh came from just behind him.

“Don’t let the modesty fool you Woodard; he’s better with that bow than anyone you’ll likely ever come across… and I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it.”

Woodard just pursed his lips and gave her a serious nod. The Captain had walked up to stand next to her as she finished speaking and he was the one to respond.

“I guess we will find out soon enough, providing that we are right about our destination. Sergeant, I want to get moving in the next few minutes.” With that, Bridgewater turned and walked in the direction of his Lieutenant.

Malina squeezed Meric’s shoulder, gave Woodard a head bob, and let them know she would go ahead and start out. She would follow the trail, leaving markers for the rest of them as she went. A minute later both men stood and left in separate directions; Woodard to get the men moving, and Meric in the direction Malina had taken, by way of the horses.

The pink and orange sky to the east blended into a purple and black as his gaze moved west, and was steadily getting brighter. The area they had camped was not as heavily wooded, so plenty of the morning light reached them as they broke camp. Allowing the soldier’s to make quick work of breaking camp. The night had only cooled minimally, so Meric checked the extra water skins hanging from Ferron and Losa, Malina’s appaloosa, to make sure they were full. It was going to be another hot day. That done, he moved his attention back to the campsite. Weber was headed his way and beyond the approaching soldier, he could see that Woodard had everyone ready to depart. After settling into his saddle and resting his longbow against his left thigh, Meric began to guide his horse out of the clearing, leaving Losa to be lead by Daniels once more.

 

#

They had been following Malina’s markers for an hour after taking a short break for lunch, when Meric mentally came to a more focused attention. To any observer, it would have looked like he had just kept on his casual scan of the woods around them. Even Weber, who was looking right at him as he relayed a story from his youth, kept on talking and gesturing with his tale. Apparently his companion did not notice the single unfamiliar bird call that came just a second ago. Meric continued to watch the area in front of them, but instead of a lazily scanning for markers, he was now intently searching for something else that did not belong. Something out of place.

A few minutes later he saw it; about fifty yards ahead and just off to the left. It was not much and he might not have noticed it without Malina’s warning, but now that he caught sight, it was obvious. Continuing his calm perusal of the area ahead, he shifted his grip on his bow and set his reins on his lap. Once his right hand was free; he whispered a command to Ferron. As his mount came to an abrupt stop and stood stock still, he straightened in his stirrups, pulled, knocked, and loosed an arrow as fast as he could. Apparently it was more than fast enough, because the shaft was sticking out of the tree trunk six inches from a sparsely bearded face, the red fletching still quivering wildly, when the man in hiding let out a shout and fell backwards.

As soon as he had let fly, Meric urged Ferron into motion, and arrived at the man even as he started scrambling backwards. By the time Meric’s feet hit the ground, he heard another rider coming to a halt right behind him. A quick glance told him it was Woodard, and he stopped and drew another shaft to cover the man that was still awkwardly crawling backwards. After taking a second to be impressed at the quickness of the Sergeant’s reaction, he stepped sideways to let Woodard handle the potential prisoner.

“Stop,” said Meric.

When he noticed the sharp head of the arrow so close and aimed at his head, the man quit moving. Woodard squatted down in front of him and looked him over. He was not in much better shape than the man they had captured the day before. More sober perhaps, but tattered and dirty. His eyes also got very round when he saw the uniform worn by the stocky man in front of him. Woodard wiped the sweat from his brow and spoke to the quaking man.

“You out here alone?”

“No! No, I got lads meetin’ me up any minute. You best be on your way. We ain’t lookin’ for no trouble…”

“He’s alone. At least, there is no one close by.”

At Woodard’s questioning look Meric explained.

“Malina gave a warning call. One call, one unknown individual. She would also have checked the area thoroughly to make sure.”

“I have… and he is alone, though the valley is only an hour farther on.” Malina materialized out of the trees ahead of them and walked back their way.

Woodard looked at her for a moment, and then focused back on the stranger. The grin he turned on the man was not friendly. Meric watched the man’s face go pale and start jabbering as Woodard stood and stepped toward him.

“You and I are going to have a nice chat about your friends,” the Sergeant said in a deceptively calm voice.

Chapter Five ->

 

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The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Three

Chapter three of my short story (in progress and unedited). Here is Chapter One and Chapter Two.

Chapter Three: Pratt

Virgil Pratt was a satisfied man. Well… except for the hangover. The view from where he stood would probably make one of those sensitive, foppish types spout some of that poetry crap and tear up. The small valley he had set his operation up in was nice. Green trees, tall grass and bushes, two nice little cottages with gardens and animal pens, a small brook running through the middle. Right out of a bard’s song. He saw something entirely different as he squinted in the painful mid-day sun and finished relieving himself over the rock ledge.

The trees were great for lookout posts. The tall grass and bushes at either end of the hollow hid several bear traps and trip wires. One cottage was his headquarters, and the other was for storage. The brook… well, they used that the way most would, but they sure were not writing any songs or painting any pictures of it. That was just what you could see from the outside. Well hidden by an overgrowth of trees and bushes, the cave entrance below him was only discovered by pure accident. He was pretty certain that the people that were living in this valley before he took it over had been unaware of the collection of rooms and tunnels that the opening revealed. The rocky outcrop was only about three stories high, too big for a hill, but not big enough to call a mountain.

The other side of the valley was even less impressive; more a brush covered knoll that stood just tall enough to make this dip in the land an actual valley. It did have one feature that made it ideal. The tunnels below spread out under a good portion of this valley, and one of those led to a cleverly disguised exit. Whoever made these tunnels, was pretty handy with a chisel. The exit looked like any other part of the rock formation on the hillock. The rest of the tunnels were also well made, and as far as he could tell, laid out in a big square pattern with a lot of interconnecting passages and rooms in the center.

The place looked like it had been abandoned a long time ago. There was no furniture to speak of, and it appeared that it had been well cleaned before the owners left; the only things marring the neatness were the thick layer of dust, numerous spider webs, and signs of wild animals having used the place for a den.

Virgil had stumbled upon the caves when he was passing through the valley almost five months ago and heard some people shouting back and forth.

 

-X-

 

He caught a glimpse of one man in dirty, rough-spun tunic and trousers, wiping a sweat rag across his brow and shouting to someone out of sight about a pig. Virgil ducked back into the nearby bushes so he could hide until he knew how many men were out there. A couple of farmers he could handle, even with the busted up leg and bruised ribs he had due to his hasty retreat from Haley, but he wanted to make sure it was only two. As he burrowed farther into his hiding spot, he glanced around and that was when he saw the crease of darkness in the rocks.  As he had entered the valley he stayed close to the high, rocky hill on the southeast side and that was where his current hiding spot was; in some dense foliage growing at the foot of the hill.

The voices gradually became more distant, but instead of going out to check on them he decided to see what the dark mystery crease was. Always too curious, he did not stop to think that the opening might not a simple cave he could crawl into and hideout for the night. The growth around the hole was a tight squeeze, and he had to back up twice to unhook his shirt when it got snagged. While he cursed his slight beer gut as he wriggled between two bushes, he was also feeling pretty good about his potential hideout. The fact that it was so overgrown meant that the voices probably did not know it was there. When he finally reached the spot, he discovered a cave entrance big enough for him to walk through upright once he moved some branches out of the way. His smug smile was gone in the same instant that he realized the solid ground for his next step was as well. He was fortunate that his tumble was only for a short distance, and that he landed without breaking any bones. His ribs sure did not like the treatment, though.

 

-X-

 

He chuckled at the memory, even though it caused his head to ache a bit more, and turned away from surveying his Kingdom. Pratt’s Refuge, he called it. A nice little haven for himself and some of his closest friends. Admittedly, he only had one person that really fit that title, but the other men and a few women that had joined him here were kindred spirits. Tired of others trying to run their lives, treating them like trash, or bringing them low just because they did not want to live their lives as not much better than slaves.

Virgil knew first hand what kind of life that could be, and he wanted none of it. His father had been a farmer, the money he earned with his own sweat taken by the tax collector. He had to grow enough to sell at market just to get by, only so he could pay someone else to be able to live on his own land. Oh, they said all of the land belonged to the King, but did the King clear the land? Did he till it and farm it?

The more money they demanded, the more his father drank himself into oblivion. Eventually they lost the farm, though how someone could take land that rightfully belonged to his father for no reason and say it was the law, he had no idea. Then to top it all off, they throw his father in jail for correcting his own wife. She had almost died, but even Virgil agreed that she had it coming, with her constant nagging and back talk. When a man is punished for providing firm discipline to what is rightfully his property… well, that sounded like a slave to Virgil. Sure, his father had taken a strap and his fists to Virgil too, but it was usually deserved.

Virgil scrubbed a hand down his face and mentally scrubbed those thoughts away at the same time. His mood was black enough, especially after the rude wake up.

There was still some of the rowdy shouting that had roused him from sleep, going on just outside the storage building. Burt’s group was making the racket, and he was about to yell at them to shut up when the man himself noticed they were being watched.

“Hey, Boss! You missed out on this one. Wooo! It were some kinda fun.”

Burt was still drunk, but that was not uncommon. It sounded like they had a decent haul this time.

“What’d you get?” His head hurt too much for small talk.

“Not too bad a haul. Leather goods…” the pause was for Burt to quench his thirst. “Ahhh. Nice stuff, too. Prob’ly get a good price for it, but that weren’t the best part.”

If his head was not so close to breaking open, he would have yelled at the man for spilling a good bit of the wine he tried to drink. Burt seemed oblivious, lost in thought about his recent outing, he just wiped an arm across his mouth and grinned up at Virgil.

“Great. Finish putting it away, and then keep it quiet. I’m tryin’ to rest.”

“Wait, wait. You gotta hear this. So we stop this family, right? The boys pull the father and kid off the wagon and drag ‘em out of the way.”

“Burt.” The drunken fool just talked right over him.

“Well, what do I do? Still in the wagon, screaming her head off, is the prettiest little piece of tail you ever did see. So I drag her off to the grass where it’s soft, right?”

“Burt.” A little more forceful this time.

“Had to get a couple of the boys to help hold her down. She was a fighter. Ha! Anyway, you should have seen her. She had the softest, bigges-”

“Burt!” He had to practically scream to get the man’s attention, and the resulting spike of pain almost made him puke. He squeezed his eyes shut, and his put his head in his hands for a second. When he was able to open his eyes and look up Burt was eyeing him nervously.

“Shut the hell up. You can tell me about it later. I’m going back to bed.”

He did not even wait for a response, he just turned to go back inside. The rock shelf he stood had two more of those ingenious hidden exits, made so that you could not tell they were there from the ground. One for him, one for his men. He left his open for light after he passed through. A glance at the bed had him tempted to crawl back in for a few more hours, but one of the lumps on the bed was squirming a little, and he was not sure he wanted to hear another person’s voice right this second. As enjoyable as last night had been, and he was pretty sure Burt’s fun could not match the enthusiasm of the two girls now sleeping off the drunk in his bed, he just wanted quiet. His bare feet were nearly silent as he crossed the room and entered the one adjoining.

The basin sitting atop the small round table in the center of the room was filled with cool water from the well, and judging by how cool it was, had been put there not long ago. The cool water felt very soothing as he splashed it across his face, and the skin of water that had been laying next to the large bowl was even more needed. Just as cool as the basin water, it tasted like a little bit of heaven to his parched throat, and he drained the skin in a matter of seconds. The towel on the other side of the table was used next, and he allowed himself a small smile of pride as he thought of what a good maid he had.

The two families that once lived in this valley had been easy to get rid of. Both of the men were cowards, pleading for the lives of their families and crying like little girls right up to the point that he cut their throats. Next came one of the wives, her screaming in a long continuous shriek only broken when she had to take a breath. His aching head pulsed at the memory of the noise. The other wife had been a bit more interesting and one of the only two in the group to put up a fight. It was actually a disappointment to have to kill her, but she just would not quit fighting. That left two teenage boys that were easier to handle than the men, and one older teenage girl. He knew she would he a handful, and was the only other one to put up any kind of fight.

The fight had mostly left her when he killed her mother. The daughter was a rare beauty with long brown hair, and very nice curves for a girl that could not be more than seventeen. Luckily, he had found a room in his new home that could be bolted from the outside. The week he spent exploring the caves while he recuperated, helped by the supplies he had stolen from his new, unaware neighbors, had revealed a few surprises. An artisan well with cool, sweet water, the lockable room that might have been a prison cell, and hidden room that must have been overlooked when the previous owners left. It had a rack with a two short swords, a spear and an axe in one corner. There was a desk that had parchments with some kind of foreign chicken scratch written on them (they were good for starting a fire, though), a chest he had not been able to open at the time, and some other vases and bits of useless junk.

He had put the weapons to use on the families and after having some fun with the girl, locked her in the room until he could figure things out. She had been a fighter, biting and scratching, but by the time he was done, he was sure she knew how things were going to be from now on. He had eventually tired of that game, and now used her as a maid, with one of the others watching her as long as she was out of her cell. She had fought that too, and he had to promise that he would keep the other men away from her as long as she did her job well. The threat that she would be given to his men if she messed up had been used a few times, but he found that she worked better if he left her alone. Since they had caught two women in their raids over the last few weeks, and had some others join the Refuge that were more agreeable company, he had let her be. Threats were given out to the boys, and he had actually needed to back those up once, but that had been it.

Feeling a bit more alive now, he slipped his boots on and headed out to find some food and then check on Burt’s haul. If it was good enough, they could lay low for a while and start sending people out with the stuff they had taken over the last month to sell in Yost. This was how a man should make a living; take from those too weak to protect it. And if anyone did not like it… well, just let them try and stop him.

Chapter Four ->

 

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A Soldier's Honor 1

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Two

Here is the second chapter for my short story. It is still a work in progress, being written alongside book two of ‘The Scepter of Maris’ series. It has not been edited, so please keep that in mind. Chapter one can be found here: The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Two: First Impressions

 

Meric watched the reactions of the two men closely. Only the barely perceptible flinch of the Captain gave away that his presence was not completely expected. Even their separation looked rehearsed, or at least like nothing out of the ordinary. They were merely moving to greet the newcomer, and that just happened to allow them room to swing their weapons. Of course, he had chosen his own position with care. Six good paces gave him more than enough room to put arrow to bow, loose, and move away from the one left standing before he could be reached. Having watched the soldiers for a bit before moving in, he knew that would leave him plenty of time to get away. Even their tracker would not be able to keep up with him in the forest. He would take the Sergeant out, since he was on the left, easier to sight. Usually he tried to chose the most dangerous man to take out first, but he had a feeling a mouse would starve on the difference when it came to these two. Both men moved like they were well acquainted with a fight.

Not that any of that would come to pass. He would never attack these soldiers and was certain that they would not attack him either, unless he provoked them. The situation was just an exercise to keep his skills sharp. He knew that he should not have done it, but could not help himself. Other than hunting, it was hard to find ways to push himself enough to keep the old skills honed. Brody had his hands full with the new inn, so he never had much time. Silas was more interested in hunting than training. Then there was Malina, and that was just a waste of time. He could never track her well enough to get the drop on her, and she always managed to sneak up on him. She was just too good. His father always talked about becoming part of the surrounding to the extent that even if someone’s eyes passed over you they did not register it because they did not see anything that was out of place. Malina was quite adept at doing this. It was not something he had entirely mastered, but judging by the ease with which he had been able to slip by these soldiers he was getting better.

He took a casual look about to ensure he still had space to work with. The brush was moderate, and the pine and oak trees were spread out enough that he could see most of the men in the party. Someone had drawn their attention to the three of them, and now all of the men were headed their way. They formed a half-circle behind him to keep him from running, but he really had no desire to do that. The only reason any of them had even seen him was because he wanted them to. From the look of things, they were going to take days to find the men who were responsible for the horror back at the road. He and Malina could lead them to the men by tomorrow. He was here to help, so he might as well get started convincing them.

“My name is Meric Vettor,” he began. “My friend and I were out hunting south of here, and on our way back we came across the family that had been murdered back at the road.”

The crackle of leaves and pine needles alerted him to one of the soldiers behind him moving in his direction, causing him to tense up. He immediately forced himself to relax again. He was not here to fight, at least not the good guys, and he would not resist if they decided to take him into custody. As long as they listened to what he had to say, he would cooperate with them.

“Hold up, Daniels.” The stocky Sergeant spoke to someone behind Meric without ever taking his eyes off of him. “I think I’ve seen him before. You’re friends with that fella that bought the Soldier’s Rest from Pete, right?”

“I am, though the man he purchased it from was named Bertrand.”

Meric was not sure if that was a test, or the man did not really know. Either way, he saw no reason not to be truthful. When the soldier grinned at him he assumed it was in fact a test, though what it proved he had no idea.

“Right, Bertrand. Anyway… I’ve seen you in there a few times. Your friend Brody seems like a good enough sort.”

That did not really feel like it required a response, so Meric kept quiet.

“Why don’t you fill us in on how you got involved in this.”

“As I mentioned before, we came across the mess back at the road and decided to investigate. We-”

“Why?” This came from the Captain.

“Why? Why did we come across them, or why investigate?”

“Investigate,” the man replied tersely, and the unspoken ‘you idiot’ was clear to everyone present.

“Right.” He tried to hide the slight embarrassment that struck. “The men that did that deserve to be punished, and since there was no one else around… we thought we would track them, find their hideout and then notify the garrison in Yost.” He felt no need to tell them that there might have been a little bit of justice meted out when they found them, so he just shrugged and went on. “It’s best not to let a trail get too cold if you can help it; better to follow and then go get reinfor… uh, authorities.”

“Of course,” the Captain said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Did you find them?”

The man looked a little unsure, and judging by his tracker’s skill Meric could understand his concern. Malina was unknown to these men, as was he, so they could not know the skill level they possessed. He did not want to come across as conceited, so he kept the fact that his friend was probably the best scout they would ever meet and he was better than most. It was unimportant and they needed to get moving.

“There are seven of them… well, six now.”

His eyes rested on the prisoner as he finished speaking. The man was trying very hard not to meet his eye, and attempted to scoot backwards when Meric’s attention hit him.

“This one was a couple hours behind the others, drunk and singing some lewd song as he staggered through the woods. We caught him on his way deeper into the forest. I got ahead of him and made some noise while coming toward him. Sure enough, he was so wasted that he thought it was his friends returning. Said ‘Hope you boys ain’t comin’ back for seconds’. Then he laughed so hard he almost fell down.” Meric could feel the anger resurfacing as he recalled the words. “When he had calmed down he said ‘cause I done finished her off’.”

The prisoner got a panicked look and tried to shift back again as the Sergeant stepped up to him.

“He’s lyin’! I ain’t done nothin’!” He was drawing another breath to continue when his gag was replaced.

Now all eyes but the Captain and the Lieutenant were on the trussed up killer. After a quick look was exchanged between the officers, the Lieutenant started to give out orders.

“Tate, get your horse, you are taking this man back to town. Sergeant Woodard, get them ready to move out. Mister Vettor, it sounds as if you have some skill in tracking. Would you be so kind as to lead the way? Private Weber will join you.”

Meric just nodded and walked east once more. He understood that they had no reason to trust him, so he did not blame them for the caution. The pace he set was a good bit faster than the men had previously been traveling, but he made certain to point out all of the signs he was following to the Private. Hopefully this would set their minds at ease, and they would realize he was not leading them into a trap. They would not completely drop their guard, not if they were competent, but they might be more open to his help if he earned their trust.

For the next three hours he led them unerringly along the path that the bandits had taken, only pausing once for a water break. He had retrieved Ferron about a hundred yards beyond where he met the soldiers, and handed the reins off to one of them so he and Weber could continue on foot. The destrier would follow along with the other horses unless there was trouble, in which case, a whistle from Meric would bring him running.

He and Weber continued to chat quietly as they walked, only pausing in the conversation when Meric wanted to show him something. If not for the heat, and their mission, the walk would have been enjoyable. Several blue jays having an animated discussion, the rustle of foliage, and the quiet murmurs of the men behind them, blended into the background as he and Weber chatted.  The Private had mentioned that his only tracking ability came from teaching himself, since he loved to hunt. This led them to discussing the best areas around Yost to find game, and Meric had just begun telling him about a spot he found a week ago when a familiar bird call stopped him in his tracks.

“That was…” The man next to him had a confused look on his face as he tried to figure out what to say.

“Out of place?” Meric finished for him. When Weber nodded, still perplexed, Meric grinned at him. “It’s from the grassy plains region in southern Rennick. I did tell you I was with a friend.”

Meric gave a return call of another bird native to his homeland and then turned back in the direction of the rest of the soldiers to wait for them all to catch up.

“My friend will be joining us momentarily,” he told Bridgewater and Keller as they arrived.

The Captain just nodded and scanned the area ahead of them, waiting patiently as far as Meric could tell. He heard the rustle of some bushes about fifteen feet behind him, and just before he turned he saw Bridgewater’s eyes pass over that direction and then jerk back. Knowing Malina had only made the noise so she would not startle anyone, he tried not to laugh when it looked like the good Captain had indeed been surprised. He had to rethink that impression when the man spoke.

“Your friend is a woman.” Disbelief filled his statement.

Before Meric could answer, Malina threw a hand on her hip, cocked her head and responded in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Wow. I can see why they made you a Captain, with such keen observational skills. Don’t they have women in the Glendon military?”

Fighting his grin was becoming increasingly difficult, and he could see the Sergeant struggling as well. The Captain was obviously flustered, but recovered well enough to answer very quickly.

“Of course. They just… uh… usually-”

Meric raised a hand to cut the man off.

“If you plan to finish that sentence with anything about doing laundry, dishes, or cooking, I should warn you… from this distance, she could put an arrow through your eye before you could even think to duck.” He knew his grin was no longer hidden.

“Meric,” Malina chided. “I’m sure that Captain Bridgewater was going to say nothing of the sort.” Her voice was so sweet then that it even made him nervous.

“Right.”

“Besides, he’s much too handsome to go ruining his face… I would aim much lower.” Her eyes flicked down and back up.

Bridgewater had actually started to blush until that last sentence, then his eyes went round, he swallowed hard and then looked a little ill. He was not the only man that looked uncomfortable either. He had seen her do this kind of thing before, and it was always effective. In one short statement she had reinforced the fact that she was a woman, but also let them all know she was not to trifled with. Meric loved her like a sister, had for several years, and knew her to be a sweet, incredibly caring woman that most people adored once they got to know her. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a battle-hardened, decorated veteran of a bloody war, and could indeed hold her own against most opponents. The slender, pretty brunette just came up to his shoulder and her size could give these soldiers the wrong impression. They did not know her, and might think because she was a woman she was less capable. She would not hold it against them as long as they were respectful. If they were to work together, the soldiers would learn just how badly they were mistaken.

The two of them had been through much together in the years-long war Rennick had fought with the Orcs not too long ago, not to mention all that they had been through since. Betrayal by their King had sent them on the run together alongside a few others. With Brody and their other friend Silas, the four of them had made a new home here, and it would not hurt to make friends with the local authorities. If they could help them, they would.

“We should get moving. I found a good spot to camp ahead, and we can make it before dark if we move now.” Malina looked at the Captain with one eyebrow raised, waiting.

Bridgewater appeared to have recovered while Meric’s thoughts had wandered, because he nodded to her respectfully and signaled his men to carry on.

Meric found Ferron and patted the palomino’s neck before he swung into the saddle. There was no longer any need to follow a trail, they could just follow his friend. She would lead them to the campsite, and tomorrow they would catch up to the band of murderers they were hunting. He was very much looking forward to that.

Chapter Three ->

 

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A Soldier's Honor 1

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter One

I have been working on this alongside book 2 and decided that I wanted to start posting it here. It is a short story about some of the characters in my books. So far, I am only on the third chapter, but I pretty much have the whole story outlined. I will post it a chapter at a time, when I have them ready (in my opinion). This is not edited, so please keep that in mind. I will eventually try to get that done, but in the mean time, this is just for fun. The story is set about two years before ‘A Soldier’s Honor’, and involves some of the main characters from that book, as well as a few new ones. Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated. I hope you enjoy.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter One: On the Hunt

The loud, rattling hiss of the wind tearing through the trees was the only sound present as Captain James Bridgewater squatted down to examine the body. When the hot breeze finally died off, the silence left behind seemed to ring deafeningly in his ears. While this victim was less brutalized than the other two, it was by far the hardest to look at. Several yards to his left, a man had been severely beaten and his throat had been slit. The woman laying in the trampled down grass on the other side of the road had endured worse; bruised and bloody with only shreds of clothing left, it looked as though they had taken their time with her before ending her life in the same way. Reaching out to close the lifeless eyes in front of him, he shut his own to try and block out the image of the child’s accusing stare. The boy could not have been more than ten or eleven years old. There had only been a jagged hole under his chin where it looked like a dagger had been thrust, mocking the innocence of the young life. Otherwise, it looked as if he were resting peacefully in the shaded rye grass alongside the road to Haley.

Tomas’ throat clearing snapped James into action again. He turned to his First Lieutenant, noticing the simmering anger just under the surface. He was sure that there was not a man on the detail he had mustered for this hunt that did not share the sentiment. They were already planning to hang the bandits responsible for this, as it was not the first murders that they had committed, but this was the first time a child had been killed. That was most likely due to luck, since none of the other groups of victims had a child accompanying them. Between what had been done to the woman and the murder of the child, he found himself almost hoping that the men responsible would resist being taken in.

“Have the men scour the area, see if there was anything left behind by the perpetrators,” James told his second.

“Yes, Sir.”

The man turned sharply and walked over to the back of the ransacked wagon that the family had been using. James spent a moment watching, and when the Lieutenant did not move off to speak to anyone, he looked around to find the men already busy doing what he wanted. James merely grunted, and stepped over to the man’s body to do a quick inspection. It was not the first time Tomas had anticipated his orders (or even the tenth) and got things moving. Tomas Keller was the kind of second that any superior officer would love to have in his command; smart, efficient, and dedicated.

There had been two other cases of bandits attacking people on the road between Haley and Yost. Since Haley was just a small town, barely more than a community of fishermen and farmers with only a four man guard detachment, the task of investigating had fallen to the Yost garrison commander. While he could have delegated this to Tomas, and knew the man was perfectly capable, things were quiet in the city and he felt responsible for the violence done to people he was sworn to protect.

He had just started an investigation into the first attack, and already had Tomas organizing a detail to hunt these bandits down when he heard about the second. It turned out that the second crime had actually happened first, but it had taken over a week for the information to reach him. The victims had been from Haley, but were on the road returning south from Yost when they were attacked. It had taken the intervening days for someone to miss them, then call for a search to be undertaken. By the time they had been found and reported, a similar scenario had taken place for the second attack, only this time in Yost. Now James and his men had come upon this scene as they headed out to hunt down the criminals, and he feared there could be more that they did not know about.

He sighed heavily and stood. There would be time later to account for his failures, right now he had a job to do. Even though it was only mid-morning he was already starting to sweat and now that the summer sun was well above the tree tops in the cloudless sky, he knew it was only going to get worse. The breeze could not even be counted on for much relief, because all it did was push the already hot air around. This summer was shaping up to be a brutal one. Swiping his forearm across his brow to catch a trickle heading for his left eye, he walked in the Lieutenant’s direction. They needed to get moving, and see if they could track these criminals down.

He cursed the lack of foresight about needing someone with scout training, but when he had taken command of the garrison there had not been anyone on the roster with those skills, and so he had not thought twice about it. Why would you need a scout in the city. Yost was a sizable port on Lake Fomar, trading with all of the nearby towns, as well as other towns around the body of water. They even dealt with cities from the neighboring kingdom on the far side of the lake, maintaining good trade relations between Glendon and Rennick. The people from Rennick that he had met were not much different than his own countrymen, and there were even some of them that lived in Yost. An innkeeper and a cooper were two that came directly to mind. All of this combined to make Yost a thriving city with plenty to keep his guards busy within the walls of the town. In the seven months since he had taken command, he had never needed to venture into the countryside surrounding Yost.

Now that lack of preparedness could only hinder their search for justice. He moved to stand next to Tomas when he saw First Sergeant Steven Woodard approaching.

“Sir,” the man addressed Tomas. “Private Weber believes he has found a trail he should be able to follow. I have ordered him on ahead with Private Benson following to mark the trail for the rest of us. The men will be ready to go shortly.”

James scanned the area and confirmed that all eight men left were headed to, or already mounting their horses. There was no denying the small bit of satisfaction he felt as he watched, and it was a much needed confidence boost at the moment. He may have been negligent where the areas outside his city were concerned, but his focus on training and discipline were shining through. In less than a minute, he and Tomas were the only ones not yet in the saddle and formed up. Woodard gave the order to send the others forward, letting his superiors move at their own pace.

They had been moving east at a slow pace as the Private ahead worked at following the trail, becoming frustrated when he had to backtrack more than once. The breeze rustling the treetops seemed to taunt them, as it disturbed the foliage above while not even so much a single leaf shifted at their level. The heat and slow advancement were starting to get to him as they waited, yet again, for Weber to relocate the trail. Mopping the sweat out of his eyes once more, he turned his head in Tomas’ direction,  deciding to talk to him concerning personnel and the need for someone with scout training, when he heard Weber shout out. Woodard called for the unit to halt and started forward at the same time as James and Tomas.

As they pushed through the brush to get to the man’s side, they could hear a muffled grunt. James started to scan the area for Benson when he noticed him just on the other side of Weber. Both men were looking down near their feet, and when he and the others cleared the last of the bushes separating them, they found what held their attention.

A man lay there, trussed up at the wrists and ankles, which were then tied to each other. He grunted again and then let out a moan that was nearly inaudible due to the gag stuck in his mouth. They all stood looking down at the man for several minutes, none moving except for Woodard. He had moved off almost immediately, calling to the men and ordered them to fan out and search the near by woods for anyone else. James turned back from his quick glance at the Sergeant just as the man spun back to join them.

“Well… anyone want to make a guess?” James did not really expect an answer, because he was sure all of them were as shocked as he.

The man finally came to his senses enough to notice he was surrounded. He started to say something through the gag, but cut off when his eyes fell to their uniform tabards. His eyes widened in panic at the dark blue trimmed in silver with the falcon crest (well… one of them did, the other was swollen shut) and he immediately started trying to get away. Which, given the way he was tied up, only resulted in him flopping around a lot and gaining very little ground. He eventually stopped, good eye squeezing shut for a moment, before he slumped in defeat. Woodard had rejoined them at about this time and knelt on the matting of dead leaves and pine straw at the man’s head. James watched the man’s eyes widen again as he caught sight of the dagger Woodard now had in his hand. The Sergeant put the blade to a pale cheek and spoke firmly.

“If you shout when I remove this gag, I promise you it will be very short lived. Understand?” he asked the quivering man. James knew that Woodard would not actually kill him for shouting, but he could understand the bound man’s belief when he heard the cold emotionless words. The Sergeant could be damn scary when the need arose.

At a vigorous head nod, Woodard began peeling the suppressing cloth out of his mouth. James appreciated Woodard’s caution, and tried to tell himself that he was not being prejudiced at agreeing with his soldier that this man looked more criminal than victim. His mismatched and dirty clothes, ragged hair, and bad teeth combined with the way he had reacted to their uniforms were all painting a clear picture for him. He would work harder not to be so judgmental in the future, and he could be wrong now, but he did not think that was the case.

“Name?” Woodard still held the dagger where the man could see it as he questioned him.

“Mark.” The man’s wary eyes shifted around the group.

Woodard tapped the blade to the prisoner’s forehead a few times.

“When I ask you a question, Mark, I expect you to give me full answers. Name.”

“Willis, Mark Willis. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I was just mindin’ my own when these two… two… highwaymen came along, roughed me up, an’ robbed me. I didn’t do nothin’. I’m straight as an arrow, me. I swear,” he was still shaking when he finished.

“Do you know anything about that family that was killed back at the road?”

Even the black eye that had formed paled considerably when he was asked this, and he started trying to shift away from the dagger.

“No! It weren’t me! It was those highwaymen. Vicious, they were. Look what they did to me.” The man turned his head this way and that, showing off the split lip and bruised eye that could be seen even through the dirt smudging his face.

“Why didn’t they just kill you like the others?”

“Eh… eh… I don’t…”

“I don’t think we will get much out of him, sir. Maybe after he stews a few days in a cell. I suggest we carry on.” He addressed James this time since Tomas had moved off.

“Very well. Leave someone to watch him and we can continue.” James’ instincts told him the same thing.

Woodard nodded and then snapped out some commands.

“Carver, come check him out before we leave. Tate, once he’s done, you will keep an eye on the prisoner.”

James saw the junior Private’s shoulders just barely drop before he caught himself and answered in the affirmative. James turned away while he tried to fight the grin that was threating only to face Woodard, who was not even attempting to cover his mirth. Several of the men were just visible as they moved through the trees in their search and he guessed that Tomas would be rounding them up soon, since they obviously were not finding anything. While he waited, he turned back to Woodard.

“How do you think he really ended up here, like this?”

Before the Sergeant could answer, a voice he did not recognize did it for him.

“I can probably help with that.”

James started slightly and dropped a hand to his sword. Woodard did not even flinch as he casually turned to the newcomer. Both of them had also stepped away from each other immediately, gaining room to move if needed. Holding his free hand up to show that it was empty, the stranger nodded to them.

He was standing about six paces away, leaning on a longbow and now looking down at the prisoner. It did not go unnoticed that the free hand he was holding out in an attempt to look non-threatening just happened to now be much closer to the quiver full of arrows at his shoulder. The stranger was wearing light-weight hunting leathers in various shades of green and brown, and was well within the perimeter his men were now searching.

Chapter Two ->

 

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A Soldier's Honor 1